‘March’: John Lewis Does A Civil Rights Memoir As A Graphic Novel
The story of how Congressman John Lewis came to write a memoir in the form of a comic book is almost like something out of a comic book itself. His press secretary for his 2008 reelection effort, Andrew Aydin, mentioned in a staff bull session that after the election was over, he was headed to a comic book convention. Lewis replied that as a teenager in 1958, he had actually been inspired by a comic book, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery Story, which told the story of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and provided a basic primer in the methods of nonviolent resistance. The comic was used throughout the South to recruit and teach early participants in the Civil Rights Movement.
Aydin, a huge comics fanboy, tracked down the comic and came back to Lewis with a proposal:
“So after finding this comic, I went to Congressman Lewis and, because I was 24 and didn’t know any better, I said ‘Why don’t you write a comic book?’ He thought about it for a bit and said “Okay, but only if you work on it with me.”
And that’s how a civil rights icon and a millennial nerd staffer co-authored March, a memoir in the form of a 3-part graphic novel, with art by Nate Powell. The memoir is framed as a flashback, with present-day John Lewis telling his story to a woman and her two young sons in Lewis’s congressional office.
The first book of March covers Lewis’s boyhood in Alabama through his first involvement in a civil rights protest, the 1960 sit-ins at lunch counters in Nashville, where he was a college student. In 1955, Lewis heard a radio sermon by an Atlanta preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr.:
The book shifts into page-turner mode here, with the watershed moments of that year: The murder of Emmett Till, Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott; experienced remotely by the 15-year-old Lewis. In 1958, Lewis is writing to Martin Luther King about trying to integrate a local university — an effort that gets him his first meeting with King, but ultimately goes nowhere because Lewis’s parents think it’s too dangerous. Instead, Lewis ends up in school in Nashville, where he meets Jim Lawson, an adherent of King and of Gandhi, and we get a short lesson in nonviolence — that MLK comic book, published by Lawson’s pacifist group, puts in an appearance here.
This last section, dealing with the lunch counter sit-ins, is easily the book’s strongest section; it provides a vivid re-creation of the training the black and white protesters went through together, role-playing as demonstrators and angry whites, yelling epithets and attempting to provoke each other:
Powell’s use of contrasting black and white tones here underscores the potential for danger; later, almost an entire page is black, the panel borders dissolving as the students learn how to get beaten up and not fight back:
This is where the graphic novel format really gets a chance to show off what it can do; we can imagine March getting heavy use in classrooms, which is clearly Lewis’s intent as well; the tension between the sin-in protestors and the white lunch counter staff is palpable, and cinematic, but personal in a way that old news footage just can’t be.
March is on the whole a respectable piece of graphic memoiring. It almost can’t help being a bit predictable — we know what a civil rights memoir is supposed to feel like, and this feels like one, all right. There’s worse reactions that a comic book can leave you with than humming “We Shall Overcome” one more time, and there’s enough sense of menace in the background to make the song feel real.
On the still-evolving Dok Zoom Rating Scale of Applejack to Princess Luna, March is a solid Rainbow Dash.
March, Book 1 by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin; Art by Nate Powell. Top Shelf, 2013, 125 pages.